By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The girls onstage were gyrating like their lives depended on it. They flung their bird-skinny arms back and forth as they danced the Charleston, mouthing the words — “Singing Lordy, Lordy, Lordy!” — of their pre-recorded accompaniment. They hauled out hula hoops, and pompons made of straw. There were pajama girls, surfer girls, skater girls, casual girls, beach girls, military girls, biker girls, retro-girls, and girls in liquidy, night-clubby dresses made of latex. They had long, shiny healthy hair, short swingy bobbed hair, curly Pre-Raphaelite hair that tumbled down in perfect ringlets. Their teenaged skin was taut and radiant. They were like a thousand incandescent bulbs, the non-energy-saving kind.
I had been invited to the Long Beach Convention Center to spend ten minutes with Miss California Teen USA, the ostensible host of the Action Girl ’03 trade show. The convention was an attempt to quantify the idea of girl-ness. To explore the possibilities of the “girl market.” To learn exactly which flowered CD holders girls would buy, which brightly lit retail displays they would run to, which specific surf-inspired bikini color-block combination (pink-white? pink-brown? pink-brown-white?) would hit it big. To find out, as one of the seminar titles had it, “Where the Girls Are.”
I arrived to find teen queen Shannon Byrne, 18, MIA from her booth — though the proprietress, a woman in red and white cotton pajamas, said she thought she saw her in the bathroom. I wandered past deserted kiosks hawking snowboards and surfboards to find that the girls had taken over the womens’ restroom, had turned it into a command center/dressing room/lounge hangout. The tile floor was littered with short-shorts, lingerie, platform shoes, tote bags, flip-flops and halter tops. There were skirts and dresses to be hastily zipped, unzipped and re-zipped as battalions of girls rushed into various sub-sequences of their dance routine. “Those pants are so cute!” said one girl from behind a toilet stall door to a girl in another toilet stall, though it wasn’t clear that she could see said pants at all. “Oooh, I know!” Another girl — languorously brushing her waist-length, flat-ironed hair in the mirror — said to no one in particular, “Gawd, would you hurry up?”
If the stickers and slogans printed on the baby-tees are to be believed, teenage girls say things like, “Boys are great! Every girl should own one.” They refer to themselves as “Babe” and “Princess” and “Dirty Girl” and “Snow Bunny.”
Miss California Teen USA had just come out of the bathroom when I found her. She stood with her hands clasped lightly in front of her, head tilted up wistfully, as if leaning into a breeze. She seemed to float. She wore a regal, sequined satin sash on which her title was embroidered, fitted blue jeans and a thin white sweater. Her hair looked even blonder than in her photo.
“The personal interview is one of the three components to the Miss Teen USA pageant,” Shannon told me, “where a panel of judges ask contestants an array of questions concerning character and her views on different issues. It is not unlike the ‰ process of interviewing for a job, because it is a job which involves staying healthy, working out, organizing the outfits. The young lady they choose will be a spokesperson. In a nice way. In a universal way. In a way that will not offend. Then there is the swimsuit competition and the evening gown competition.” In a few weeks, Shannon will go on to compete for the national title, which means that, if she wins, she will be the reigning monarch of all teenage girls in America.
On which issues will she take a stand? “I have strong feelings about self-image and the media, drugs, teen abstinence. Oh you know, just your basic issues.”
Across the room, in a separate corral, skater boys slid out in parabolic loops, got air, ate concrete, to the clamp-whoosh-clamp of wheels on curved plywood and metal. Boys, brought in to attract the girls, on one side of the room. Girls on the other.
I suggested that we watch the dancers for a while and Shannon settled in obligingly. Was she friends with any of the dancers? “No. I don’t know who they are. But see that girl with the short brown hair? The one in the pleated skirt? I competed with her.”
“Why do you suppose people are fascinated by girls?” I asked. “What do you think is the difference between being a girl and being a woman?”
“I’m sorry but I don’t understand the question,” she answered. “I don’t know how to articulate it.” And the more I considered it, the more I thought she was right. Maybe there was no good answer. Maybe I didn’t understand the question either.
Abruptly the music ended, and as quickly and unexpectedly as they had materialized the dancing girls were gone. Vanished into the muggy Long Beach midafternoon, perhaps to pelt each other with teddy bears, perhaps to part-time jobs at Jamba Juice, perhaps to melt into the frothy California surf. You just had no idea.